| Exodus 17:1-7
|Tue, March 19, 1996
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Drama is a powerful medium. You go to the theater and, as the curtains draw back, watch life unfold before you. As the plot moves forward ou find yourself drawn in, wondering what is going on ... what it's all about. John's gospel is like that. It is written in the style of Greek theater. If you watch carefully you will notice that there are never more than two characters in dialogue at any time. John brings his characters on and off the stage, scene by scene, drawing us into the story along with them. Last week, last scene it was Nicodemus - a Jewish leader who seeks Jesus out by night, struggling to make sense of him. This week, this scene it is a woman - a Samaritan woman who bumps into Jesus by accident at noon. Night ... day. Man ... woman. Named ... unnamed. Jew ... Samaritan. Seeking ... sought. Sitting in the theater you might think that you get it, that in these two carefully scripted stories John portrays a Christ who comes to the whole world, not to a select few. But you soon realize that it is not quite so simple as that. No, the conversation at the well is not just about making a point... it is about working a change in those who pay attention. Drama is a powerful medium.
Witness the power of the opening line: "Give me a drink" Jesus says. On first read it looks innocent enough. He seems an average traveller stopping at the local watering hole, asking for some of that famous hospitality the signs outside town advertise. But watching as the curtains are drawn back we in the audience see something else. UN peacekeepers march past the barbed wire barriers of no-man's land. It looks familiar. Is it Belfast ... Bosnia ... or the West Bank? Samaria, where Jews are personna non grata. Samaria, where Roman troops provide safe passage for travelling Jewish rabbis and their entourage. Samaria, where Jewish rabbis assume that all the women are unclean ... unfit to speak or share a drink with. When we see her approach the well where Jesus is sitting we can feel the dramatic temperature rise. Surely sparks will fly, tempers will flare, trouble will erupt. No wonder she is leary. We'd hesitate, too: "How is it that you - a Jew - ask a drink of me - a woman of Samaria?".
But Jesus doesn't answer her. She - and we - are left dangling, wondering what is going on. "If you only knew," he carries on, "who is asking you for a drink you would have asked him and he would have given you living water". It had been an ordinary day. How many times had she come to this same well for water? How many times every day do woman in third world countries all over the world still trudge to the well for water? In Samaria they still go, every day. Jacob's well still flows. Twenty odd years ago when I visited the site there were young palestinian girls drawing water there ... and carrying it home on their heads in spent shell casings left from the '67 War. There is nothing unique or glamorous or unusual about it. It is just another ordinary day of drudgery. A day like any other day in her life ... in your life. Or is it? Jesus hints that something extra-ordinary might occur in the midst of the drudgery. He suggests that, if she were to ask him, he could give her fresh water. Water, perhaps, like the water that Jacob was said to have provided from the well ... the legendary water that bubbled up like a fountain out of the well. She is cautious, unsure but, nonetheless, curious: "Sir, you've got no bucket and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?".
Again Jesus doesn't answer her. She - and we in the audience - struggle to get it. What is he talking about? "This water", he says, "cannot satisfy your thirst for long, but those who drink of the water I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I give them will become in them a spring gushing up to eternal life." Anyone who has ever hauled water from a well ... anyone who has ever been thirsty knows that this promise is almost too good to be true. Remember, humans can live for weeks without food ... but after a few days without water the body, quite literally, dies of thirst. Putting an end to thirst seems an impossible promise. Of course, it's a promise that we hear from too many snake-oil salesman every day: "Are you thirsty ... thirsty for friends, for meaning, for hope?", they ask. "Then this is sure to cure what ails you. Living Water we call it." Notice how many beer and soft-drink commercials promise not just to whet your whistle but to deliver eternal life! How did those cola ads go? "I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony". But not them alone. Why, look here, at this full page promise in Wednesday's Globe and Mail: Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel image of God touching Adam into life and these promising words: "Without a purpose there is no reason. Without passion, there is no reason for existence." Amen, we say with the woman at the well, amen. Eagerly turning the page, however, we discover that eternal life comes ... in the form of a car! In reality, our thirst is only quenched by such consumables for a day and then we must return for more. So, with the woman at the well, we ask for this living water that brings with it Real Life.
But this is so infuriating. Still Jesus refuses to answer any of her - of our - questions directly. She can't figure this Jesus out. But he knows more than she can guess. "Get your husband", he asks. "I don't have one", she tells him. "Right you are", Jesus nods, "for you have had five husbands and one you are with now is not your husband. You have told the truth." Well there is no hiding it anymore. There is definitely more going on here than meets the eye. She says it straight away: "Sir, I see that you are a prophet". And the audience can't help but noticing all that is left unsaid. Nowhere does Jesus condemn her life. Nowhere do we discover just what has left her in such straights. Has she been victimized by a series of men ... or of tragedies? Nowhere does Jesus tell her to repent and follow. No. He just knows her ... "knows everything she has ever done" she tells her friends. Unlike the snake-oil salesmen whose gospel is all smoke and mirrors this prophet knows a lot more than he lets on. There is more depth to this well than the bottom of a bottle. How many times have I preached a sermon on some passage or other ... a sermon in which I simply tried to tell the story without adding any great 'Edwinian' pearls of wisdom ... only to have people say: "It's as if you were speaking directly to me ... as if you knew exactly what has happened to me." Along with the words often come tears of recognition, living tears of delight at knowing that here, at last, is the source of True Life ... the source which lives beyond any holy place.
"That's all fine", she says standing by Jacob's well, "but you and I know that we Samaritans and Jews disagree about the source of this Life." At last Jesus continues along her train of thought: "Trust me", he says, "soon the Father of All will not be tied down to this Samaritan Mountain or to the Jewish Temple, not to a Catholic Pontiff or to the Protestant Pulpit. Soon the Source of Living Water will be available to all who are thirsty for Honest-to Goodness Life". "Yes", she says, "I know that. When the Messiah comes we won't need to rely on holy places and authorities ... God will speak with us face to face." Can you feel it? Do you see it? The look in his eyes and in hers ... the dramatic silence on the stage and in the theater ... on that ordinary, yet extra-ordinary day? "I am he", says Jesus, "the one who is speaking to you". "I am he" ... and then the disciples bustle in, stage left ... shocked at the sight of their honoured rabbi deeply engaged in a theological conversation with a woman. She exits quickly, stage right, leaving her water jar behind. And notice, she runs like an evangelist ... calling everyone she can to come and meet this stranger at the well. But she is no typical evangelist: "Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done", she says, "He cannot be the Christ, can he?" Perhaps the stage instructions don't have her exiting stage left, after all. Perhaps she runs from Jacob's Well down here ... into the audience ... inviting us to come and see ... asking us what we think ... "Can this be the Christ?". Well, after too many evangelists who beat us over the head with capital "T" Truth and armlock us into a pre-packaged meeting with Jesus her witness is refreshing ... captivating .... inviting. Maybe, just maybe, as the curtains close on this confounding scene we get it, after all.
I don't know. I don't know. I wonder if the living water isn't drinking something but relating to someone ... I wonder if she discovers that the conversation with Jesus is itself the living water ... the water of respect, dignity, compassion, truth. And my wondering takes me back to this past Wednesday evening. It was time to leave the office ... time to hurry up and get to the theater so that I could watch my son perform in his high-school musical ... when another drama began to unfold. There was a message ... an urgent message from the chaplain at the hospital. Mrs. Anderson was failing rapidly ... could I take Communion to her ... by Thursday she might not be able to eat anymore. What to do? I rushed off to the Village, found a loaf of white bread and a jar of grape juice. I made my way to the Purdy Pavilion and found Myrtle and Roy Anderson there. "I've come to share Communion", I said. "I'm thirsty", Myrtle responded, "I'm thirsty". I looked around the room and found her glass of water and a straw. She sipped ... and sipped some more. Then I began the communion sevice, turning the pages in the service book to the opening sentence and reading: "Jesus said, 'Anyone who believes in me will never thirst'." Soon I was pouring the grape juice into the tiny glasses. "I'm thirsty" Myrtle said again. "Would you like some more water", I asked, "or the Communion wine". She pointed to the juice. Through the straw she swallowed the contents of the glass in one sip. "I'm still thirsty" she said. Another tiny glass full, another sip and then another. Still thirsty. Finally I poured the rest of the juice into her cup and she sipped it down. "Thank-you", she said, "thank-you ... I'm not thirsty anymore". As I drove to the theater I couldn't get that moment out of my head. It was as if she were me ... us ... thirsty for Life, the life of Christ. And I ... I had been privileged to stand at the well and to draw the Living Water up from the depths ... for her and for Roy and for me. On Friday, just after noon, she died.
It has been said that there are two ways of knowing. One way is when you finish a tough math problem and, at the end exclaim, "I got it!". That's one way of knowing. The other way is when you go to a play, and the play gets hold of you, moves you unexpectedly and deeply. When you emerge from the theater, changed by your experience of it, you don't say, "I got it!" No, it gets you.
(with thanks to Eugene Lowry & William Willimon for the final paragraph)